Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table Shows Ruth Reichl's Life as a Complicated Series of Meals

Although most people wouldn't think twice about a food critic's background, Ruth Reichl's life is the stuff that makes for interesting reading. Much more than a foodie memoir, Reichl's look at her early life from childhood to her first job as a food writer wears many hats.

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table is a biography of a poor little rich girl, one who was sent off to boarding school and sailed off to Europe. It is also the story of a hippie living freely in the 1970s, shocking society with her blindness to skin color and normal conventions. It is the story of a child dealing with a parent with mental illness. It is the story of a girl learning to cook first at home (disastrous), then at her father's first wife's mother's house (yes, you read that convoluted relationship correctly). It is also the story of a food writer in the making.

While Reichl came from some degree of wealth, her tone is never pretentious. Instead, she writes candidly about her life in New York City and about her mother's madness, which colored every day of her life. She forgoes some of the privilege she enjoyed as a child in order to escape for periods of time: to the University of Michigan for college, to Europe as a newlywed, to Berkeley as a commune-living chef. 

Reichl's relationship with food is a constant in her life, from the molded hors d'oeuvres her mother serves at parties to the wine she tastes in Europe on a buying trip with her local wine seller. Food is more than just food to Reichl; instead, it is a part of her life she can control, one that she can depend on. It is perhaps the thing she relies on the most, the ability of food to please and to comfort as long as one uses fresh ingredients and treats them well.

Often foodie memoirs are not noted for their literary merit, but Reichl manages to both write about her life and food and to do it extremely well. The pages of Tender at the Bone are sprinkled with well-tested recipes, but Reichl's true ability is in her impeccable word choice, her ability to write prose about food and make it sound like poetry. 


1/4 c vegetable oil
8 cloves garlic, peeled
2 lbs lean pork, cut in cubes
1 bottle dark beer
12 oz orange juice
1 lb tomatillos, quartered
1 lb Roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, chopped
1 14-oz can black beans
Juice of 1 lime
1 c sour cream

          Heat oil in large casserole. Add garlic cloves. Add pork, in batches so as not to crowd, and brown on all sides. Remove pork as the pieces get brown and add salt and pepper.
          Meanwhile, put beer and OJ in another pot. Add tomatillos and tomatoes, bring to a boil, lower heat, and cooke about 20min or until tomatillos are soft. Set aside.
          When all pork is browned, pour off all but about a tablespoon of the oil in the pan. Add coarsely chopped onions and cook about 8min, or until soft. Stir, scraping up bits of meat. Add chopped cilantro and pepper and salt to taste.
          Put pork pack into pan. Add tomatillo mixture and chopped jalapenos. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover partially and cook about 2 hours.
          Taste for seasoning. Add black beans and cook 10min more.
          Stir lime juice into sour cream.
          Serve chili with rice, with sour-cream/lime juice mixture on side as a topping.

-- Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (p.230)

To learn more about Reichl, visit her website, read her blog, or follow her on Twitter.

This post is part of the Beth Fish Reads weekly series, Weekend Cooking. BFR describes Weekend Cooking as a place for "anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs." To read more food-related posts from the past week, visit this week's Weekend Cooking post.


  1. Don't you just love Ruth Reich's writing? Now you're making me want to revisit her books. The recipe sounds like a winner.

    1. I just discovered her, with Garlic and Sapphires. Then I picked up this one; I'm very glad there are at least two more memoirs from her for me to devour!

  2. Very interesting and great recipe!

    1. I think the recipe's ingredients are on my shopping list for this week! I haven't made it yet, but it was the recipe that stood out to me most in the book.

  3. 'A part of her life she can control' - what an interesting thought.

    1. It is interesting, Nan. I think she truly dove head first into cooking excellent food because it was an escape -- and a sharp contrast to her mother serving days-old food. She spent her early life trying to save dinner guests from food poisoning, then her later life trying to make exquisite dishes people would swoon over.

  4. That sounds like a great story! Thanks!

  5. Great review! I read this with my book club years ago - a very popular choice that we all loved.

  6. I read this one! And "Garlic and Sapphires" too! My mom is still in deep, deep morning for Gourmet magazine. As a kid, I would practically memorize it. I especially liked the Gourmet Travels articles!

    1. I know she was editor of Gourmet, but I have only ever seen it in passing. Reading her memoirs kind of makes me want to try to find old copies at yard sales or on eBay, though!

  7. I've never read anything by Ruth Reichl. It sounds like I should, though. That recipe looks delicious, too.



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